My friend AnnaLysa (middle beauty in the photo above) just had a baby girl. It is so hard not to be in the same city to witness the cooing and bonding. I’ve been flipping through old journals, snuggling up to memories of good times past since I can’t be with her to celebrate the present. Here’s a snippet I found from an old journal I kept around the time that picture above was taken (2001?), when she and I were co-directing 20+ counselors and 80 kids at summer camp:
She writes songs that capture the essence of camp and sings them to everyone. I stress about how camp might fail then go home and quietly write in my journal. I am in awe of the lack of fear she has about sharing herself, her art, with the outside world. I don’t tell her enough how lovely she really is. I am so glad she’s my friend. I love her!
Over thirty years into our friendship, I am still so glad to call her my friend. Lindsey Mead—a writer whose blog I found, then lost, then happily found again recently—has been writing about friendship this month, and I can relate to her feelings on the subject. She wrote, “A person’s closest friends can tell you an awful lot about them and that who we truly love shows us a lot about who we are” (gosh, I hope that’s true). And, “Friendship is made of attention.” I agree especially with the part about attention, which is why I took Annie’s latest phone call from the bathroom. I didn’t want to miss any wonderful baby details, and it’s the only place I can guarantee my full attention these days.
Here’s my own honest truth about friendship. I think probably the only thing that keeps me ever being a good friend—and there are plenty of times I’m not a good one— is that when I think to myself, Why aren’t my friends paying attention to me?, I’ve trained myself to respond to that feeling by paying attention to them. Works every time.
Here’s hoping you have folks who pay you some attention. You deserve it.
Today, as I prepare to attend the three classes my kids are enrolled in on Tuesdays, I decided it was a good time to tell you about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. I happened to turn right to a chapter called “Concerted Cultivation,” which seemed apropos to the moment; for all I know, any of the chapters would have felt this way.
During the first of last week’s onslaught of Tuesday classes, I settled into the bleachers to flip through the book and pretend to watch Charlie knock a bunch of orange cones over in a gym. I sat up sharply when I came across a single word: uncertainty. Somehow this one word resonates more than the other thousands I have read in books and essays on modern parenthood and cultural contradictions. Uncertainty would actually be a better title for her book, albeit less snappy. Here is her point regarding uncertainty. For millennia people viewed childhood, if not exactly the same, similarly. They saw children as a way to make extra income, to help on the family farm. They did not sentimentalize or coddle children, nor did they afford them any particular protection. Didn’t we learn in Anthropology class (or was it Environmental Sociology?) that they used children in the coal mines prior to canaries to test the air quality? Children are much better diggers than canaries, after all.
Over a wink in time, we have completely altered the thinking about parents and children; no longer their employers, we are now their protectors, and we make a career out of getting them a career. Only, we aren’t quite sure what that career should be, since the landscape of employment changes so rapidly in our time. No longer can we rely on the college education, or even graduate education, as the gold standard for our children. What seemed the symbol in America of ultimate achievement for generations is crumbling before our eyes, and we are scrambling in the rubble to rebuild; yet, we seem to be trying to build something new from the top down. Rather than watching our children develop skills and preferences and directing them toward activities that appeal to those strengths, we throw them at a myriad of activities that may or may not interest them and shuttle them onto the next thing before they can even stop and decide whether they liked the last activity.
Margaret Mead, the celebrated anthropologist, wrote about how parenthood was changing in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and observed even then, “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations, sprung up like mushrooms, new, untried, rank like skunk cabbages in early spring. And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” In other words, we have no folkways to guide our parenting. We are anxious because we don’t know what’s coming next.
When I was 14 years old and at a slumber party with friends, we discovered cookie dough ice cream for the first time. At my inaugural tasting, I recall a feeling of incredulity that the whole time the world had been spinning, we were completely unaware this amazing flavor was out there waiting to be discovered. It was probably the first time I truly understood the value of invention. Maybe I should be embarrassed by this admission, but I’m not. Cookie dough ice cream is damn good stuff. My girlfriends and I sat around that evening passing the pint, digging for dough nuggets, and talking about how there could be other things out there that hadn’t been discovered yet. I’m sure that when I went home, I told my mom all about it and begged her to buy some. What I failed to mention to her is that my friend had gotten one of those AOL CD-ROMs in the mail, and that we had also tried out something called the world wide web that night. Or if you like Godfather references, you could say I took the cookie dough and left the Internet.
I could have lied just now and told you that my eureka moment in recognizing my own inability to judge the next big thing was something profound like reading The World is Flat. But I like this story because it’s more like real life; our capacity to comprehend and anticipate what’s coming next is just waiting to be distracted by little balls of cookie dough.
Modern motherhood is fraught with concern over doing things right. We enroll our kids in too many classes and try to control what they do in school, which friends they pick, what subjects they pursue. This shit is bananas. When schools give kids piles of homework—is this based on any evidence? Or are we just scared that they might not learn what they need to know, so we practically throw the books at them? Do we even know what they need to know?
So yeah, that whole Internet thing upended how much our lives could change in the span of a day, and month, a year—and we didn’t even realize it was happening at the time. But I think we don’t need to know what lies ahead to make decisions about our children. We don’t need, as Nora Ephron puts it, all the “Mozart CDs while…pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until it [is] old enough to unbutton your blouse.” Those things aren’t wrong or bad, but we don’t need them to be good mothers. Perhaps we can simply go back to motherhood the way it was before we began to scramble; therefore, while I will enroll my children in some extracurricular activities, I do solemnly swear this week is the last of the horror that is The Tuesday of Three Classes. I invite you to do the same.
My preschooler just turned four years old. Time again for her annual pilgrimage to the pediatrician for a well-child visit. We adore our pediatrician, so I look forward to chatting with her. That is, I was looking forward to it, until we arrived at the visit and I suddenly remembered the other hallmark of a four-year-old’s birthday: vaccines. Lots of them.
The nurse confirms my dread as he mimes a shot in the arm and mouths She’s going to get two over his shoulder on his way out of the room to get the syringes. “Honey,” I begin, clearing my throat. “Sometimes even when you’re not sick, the doctor needs to give you medicine to make sure you don’t get sick. It’s called a shot, and it only hurts for a minute.”
“I know, Mommy.” Her lips pursed in a knowing expression, she pats my hand and says, “Don’t worry, it will be okay. I’ll just close my eyes and think of something happy.”
“Oh. Well, that’s…good.” Daniel Tiger strikes again!
The doc’s office isn’t the only place one of my children has recited a little life lesson from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It happens frequently. I’ll be just about to intervene or explain a situation, and one of my kids will belt out a memorized ditty from the show. Then I’m left standing there like a chump. I’m being replaced…by a PBS cartoon!
The jingles are so catchy and subliminal I even find myself humming a little earworm like Growwwwwnups Come Back while I’m getting dressed for a date. You might think we watch TV constantly, but it’s quite the opposite. They only occasionally catch one episode on the weekend via Netflix, making it all the more incredible how well they know and internalize the messages. Each time one of the kids says Everyone is big enough to do something or Find a way to play together, I think of the great Will Ferrell line in Anchorman: I’m not even mad, I’m impressed.
Truly, I am only a little bit irked that a cartoon character can continually best me at parenting. But I’m mostly happy because, hey, every time they know to go to the bathroom (When you have to go potty, stop and go right away!) instead of just standing there whining until I figure it out and tell them to go is getting the job done. Count it as one less time I have to feel 1% crazier. And that is a big win for me, which is why I’m a Daniel Tiger mother. Because like a tiger mother, I start out with all these principles and ideals. But at the end of the day, I will do whatever is required to make my life easier. I will cut corners, I will even cut crusts off, and I will definitely let them watch television.
While looking for ways to spice up dinner, I found a great book called The Family Dinner. It gave me the idea to read a poem to the girls, which has become a nightly bedtime ritual. I have quite a few books of poetry, both from my childhood and others that I’ve collected over the years, and it’s the part of my evening with the kids that I’ve become most excited about. I’ve even told them that I’ll reward them with a dime for each line of poetry they memorize and recite aloud.
Each time I begin reading or reciting a poem, my heart swells at the memory of all the times my grandmother has recited poems with me over the years. Her mother also recited to her, and I love passing on this family tradition to the girls. It’s fun, and besides, studies show reciting even improves memory and brain function. Here’s an example of a simple, catchy poem that has passed down through the generations:
I eat my peas with honey; I’ve done so all my life. It makes them taste quite funny, But it keeps them on my knife!
Lately we’ve been reading from one of my childhood books, When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne. Some of the poems include British words and colloquialisms, but the kids don’t seem to notice or care. Last night we read “The Island,” and I loved it so much I’m sharing it here:
The Island by A.A. Milne
If I had a ship,
I’d sail my ship,
I’d sail my ship
Through Eastern seas;
Down to a beach where the slow waves thunder–
The green curls over and the white falls under–
Boom! Boom! Boom!
On the sun-bright sand.
Then I’d leave my ship and I’d land,
And climb the steep white sand,
And climb to the trees,
The six dark trees,
The coco-nut trees on the cliff’s green crown–
Hands and knees
To the coco-nut trees,
Face to the cliff as the stones patter down,
Up, up, up, staggering, stumbling,
Round the corner where the rock is crumbling,
Round this shoulder,
Over this boulder,
Up to the top where the six trees stand…
And there I would rest, and lie,
My chin in my hands, and gaze
At the dazzle of the sand below,
And the green waves curling slow,
And the grey-blue distant haze
Where the sea goes up to the sky…
And I’d say to myself as I looked so lazily down at the sea:
“There’s nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me.”